Monday, February 8, 2010

OK. Hibernation Over.

I've been missing. It's been a good month since the last solid FotD post, for a number of reasons, some more turbulent than others. However, I'm back, and with some solid material of interest from one of my favorite places to cook: my mom's place in Colorado. Why do I love it, aside from obvious reasons? To start, it's a charmingly rustic place nestled into a mountainous valley that brings me back to some serious basics. It is, naturally, cold there, so a warm oven baking something is always nice; all the pots and pans are made of cast iron, my absolute favorite cooking material and one that takes some time to get to know how to use properly; a lamb is slaughtered each autumn, dressed and frozen as are berries and peaches for use throughout the remainder of the year; grocery lists are well thought out before the long drive into town; pre-dinner cocktails are obligatory while sitting next to the fire with a lushly furred cat as a large, perfectly-suited-for-this-kind-of-weather dog howls protectively outside from time to time; and after the feast and conversation, one lies in a soft, toasty bed and remarks at the greatness of the silence, and sleeps the content sleep.
We planned our meals carefully, calculating how many I would be there for. Upon arrival, mom had one of my classic favorites ready: a big roasted ham and gooey, unctuous scalloped potatoes. Can't go wrong there. The next day, during a trip into town to see the old haunts, I would happen upon Mario's, the town's "Italian" restaurant. Given the loving nickname of "Malari-os" by my brother, it is always a destination of mine for some reason. They give you these big salads composed of iceberg lettuce, roughly 1 cup of shredded mozzarella cheese, the lot of it littered with pepperoni and Italian dressing. Basically a pizza with zing and crunch, served cold. but I love it. Then, the pizza itself. The typical combinations, but somehow, on this trip, I was so happily surprised--I noticed, which I had missed so many times before, that their crust is homemade, and it had the great tang of fermented yeast that is so difficult to find. A nice crunchy outer crust gave way to the melted cheese bomb and processed meat toppings, but hey--they got the most important part right. And it was good. Great. Grand. Maybe Mario's wasn't so bad after all. And the waitress, a young local girl, was one of the best servers that I've had in years. Come to think of it, that seemed to happen a lot on this trip. Even at a truck stop in the middle of the mountains, where I had my beef burrito smothered in green chile; it's been few and far between that I've experienced that sort of grace. So much for the refinements of the big city.
And about that green chile (with the acknowledgment of my digression). Essentially, it's pork butt braised with roasted poblano peppers (and mmmm...that smell of roasting poblano peppers...). One of my favorite things, ubiquitous in Colorado but you know, I just don't find it done the same way anywhere else. If you find yourself out there, try it. It's usually involved with menu items labeled "sloppy" or "messy". It's the best. Maybe I'm partial due to nostalgia. Could be. There were a lot of places on this trip, in Denver and Boulder, that I used to go and love and make proclamations of said love to anyone who would listen. And some of them, upon review, were just plain bad. Bars mostly. Sports bars. I'm not a sports bar kind of guy. Was I back then? I think it was just the happy hours that got me hooked (one place has three, yes three 2-for-1 happy hours per day: 9-11am (what?), 4:30-6:30pm, 9pm-12am. Yeah.).
ANYWAY, back to the remote comfort of my mom's place. Before heading in to town to see friends and experience Malario's and watch a basketball game at the high school, mom and I decided on lamb shanks for that evening. And how great is it that, for four people, there were four shanks available, because, as we all know, lambs have four legs. The special thing here was that they were all from the same lamb. It's probably been a long time since I've eaten an individual cut from the same animal as the person sitting across from me. We seasoned them nice and heavy and seared them off in cast iron; added carrots and onions and celery and garlic and red wine and stock, covered them up and put them in a 250 degree oven to braise away for the rest of the day. Remember what I said about it being nice, in such cold climates, to keep an oven on? They were in there for about 4 hours; mom turned the heat off and they just sat, happily, in their nice, warm bath until we were ready for them. (Speaking of nice warm baths, there's this place, up in the mountains, at the base of a 14,000 foot mountain peak, where a naturally occurring hot spring heats the river water, water which, mind you, was likely snow about three minutes before, a few thousand feet up. You use the river rocks to make a little private hot tub and you sit in the river. Beautiful and amazing.)
Stopped by the local brewery that sells their really good beer in growlers; sadly, I forgot the family growler and the brewery was out of them! Boo! So, a liquor store stop was necessary. One thing I noticed and remembered in Colorado was the plethora of amazing microbrews. It's ridiculous. The variety is astounding. And lots of places are canning their beer rather than bottling. For me, I first saw it in Dale's Pale Ale several years ago, and it seems to have caught on quite a bit. This time around, it was Ska Brewing's Euphoria Pale Ale. Seemed weird at first to can a good beer, but when you think about it, it makes perfect sense. No light on the beer. More transportable if you are in a raft, and less breakable over a head if a compromising situation arises. And you should probably be pouring this beer in a glass anyway, not drinking it straight out of the bottle or can, missing so much of the all-important aroma. It'd be great to see more of these. It'd be great to see more beer in Chicago, from Chicago. I know we've got a handful, but man, whenever I head west, it blows my mind how much is out there.

So, back with beer in tow, we boiled some of the potatoes my mom harvested that season, kept in a nice cool place in a gunnysack (which is, incidentally, the name of a restaurant in town), drained them and put them back in the pot with some butter and salt and pepper and rosemary. Put the lid on and shook the pot to smash them up. Simple. Took the shanks out of the liquid and strained the vegetables out; reduced the liquid just a touch and swirled in some butter and rosemary. It was already so thick that it needed no help at all. Piled up the potatoes and braised vegetables, put a shank on top, and drizzled the jus all over it. Soft, tender lamb shank and tons of flavor soaking down through the vegetables into the potatoes. Red wine. All this after the pre-dinner Manhattans and a few beers. Followed by Rum Raisin ice cream and coffee. Top-notch.
Next day: gumbo, cornbread, pecan pie, margaritas, more beer, and zydeco music. Oh, and slow poached eggs from the chickens down the road. Let's do that in another post, 'cause now my hunger has been worked up and I need to make something to eat. Also, I'm doing another Soup and Bread on Wednesday, 2/10/10, at The Hideout in Chicago; it's always a good time with donation proceeds going to good things food and hunger related, and there's always great people bringing tasty soups. Come on down. Starts at 5:30.